A trip to Cambridge with the Japan Society

17th c illustrated scroll, Cambridge University Library Summer’s here, the sun’s shining and what better way to enjoy it than with a nice day out with the Japan Society? Yesterday I joined a small group of members on a trip to Cambridge for a look behind the scenes at the Japanese print collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Japanese Department at Cambridge University Library, plus a stroll around the historic streets, and a delicious lunch at Fitzbillies.

At the Fitzwilliam we met the print curator, Craig Hartley, who showed us a selection of prints from the Museum’s archives, including the work of Utamaro, Hiroshige, Hokusai, Yoshitoshi and Kunisada. It was a rare privilege to see them close up and not under glass.

This triptych by Hiroshige is Mountain and River on the Kiso Road.

Mountain and River on the Kiso Road (Kisoji no sansen), by Hiroshige

This double oban print by Yoshitoshi shows an episode from the Suikoden (based on the Chinese Tales of the Water Margin) in which our hero, Rin Chu has been detained in a remote army camp. The minister of war sends an assassin, Riku, to kill him. Riku sets fire to the guard house (seen in the background) but Rin Chu was not inside having taken shelter in a nearby temple. He kills Riku and the print shows Rin Chu with Riku’s corpse. Flakes of snow have been added by flicking paint at the picture after printing.

Hyoshito Rinchu Kills Officer Riku, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi We were able to see Utamaro’s Bird and Insect books, and study their unique printing techniques using mica, brass or tin dust to create shine and sparkle and their embossed texture, created by pressing into the paper without ink (blind embossing).

Utamaro Book of Birds The good news is, you can examine these books in detail too, in an interactive version on the Fitzwilliam website that gives you close-ups of the illustrations and translations of the kyoka (crazy verse) poems that accompany the pictures.

Following a break for lunch at the famous Fitzbillies cafe and a fascinating discussion of Edogawa Rampo versus Roald Dahl, we wandered along to Cambridge University Library to join Noboru Koyama, Head of the Japanese Department, for a tour of the archive and a close-up look at some of the historic books in the Japanese collection.

Cambridge University Library

This handwritten story of a mouse has been illustrated in coloured paints. It was originally a scroll but was made into a book by folding it and binding the folds.

Cambridge University Library - Tale of the Mouse, bound scroll

This 17th century book is called Horse Banners of the Feudal Lords. This page shows the banners of Tokugawa Yoshinao, whose family crest was the wild ginger trefoil.

Cambridge University Library - Horse Banners of the Feudal Lords

This 17th century illustrated scroll tells the story of the invention of the folding fan. (The picture at the top of this post comes from this scroll.)

Cambridge University Library - 17th c scroll

This 17th century edition of the Tales of Ise was set in moveable type with woodblock printed illustrations.

Cambridge University Library - Tale of Ise

This 19th century printed book is a collection of biographies of Ukiyo-e artists. The page shown is the biography of Sharaku.

Cambridge University Library - biography of Sharaku

The tour of the library took us around the Aoi Pavilion, built with a generous donation from Tadao Aoi of the Marui Company, including a trip to the basement storeroom.

Cambridge University Library

Cambridge University Library

Cambridge University Library

A magical and exhausting day out – many thanks to the cheerful and indefatigable staff of the Japan Society, Heidi, Jack and Alice, who organised and led the tour.


10 thoughts on “A trip to Cambridge with the Japan Society

  1. As a non-resident Cambridge graduate I really enjoyed this article which brought me information about Japanese art I never knew existed in that city. PS The photos are super sharp and good. What camera do you use please?


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